Foothill garden blends art, artistry

Dozens of Japanese maples in colorful pots dot the landscape
By: Gloria Young, Home & Garden
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By Gloria Young Home & Garden When G.J. “Chris” and Carol Graves purchased their 2.3 acres in Newcastle in 1979, it was bare ground. “There was not a rock, tree nor anything living here — except weeds,” Chris Graves said recently. “Everything was brought in.” Graves has done much of the landscaping since he retired from the banking industry in the mid-1990s. Now, Chinese tallows, fruitless mulberries and Freemont cottonwoods tower over a tapestry of statuary, dozens of plant varieties, “heroic-size” boulders and large iron and stone artifacts. Three ponds and a stream add symmetry and natural beauty, as well as providing a sanctuary for birds, opossums and squirrels. And the crowning touch is the more than 50 varieties of Japanese maples Graves has collected over the past decade. “We have 106 Japanese maples,“ he said. “It just grew like topsy. We started putting in a few Japanese maples and liked the way they looked.” Graves, who began collecting the trees in 2001, purchased most of them at nearby Lakes Nursery, which specializes in Japanese Maples. “The truth is, I carry about 200 choices,” owner Joe Ciurej said Monday. “I believe I have the largest selection in the state.“ The trees vary by size and color. There are upright, laceleaf and miniature varieties. Most of the maples in the Graves’ landscape are the laceleaf variety, Chris Graves said. When selecting a Japanese maple, an important factor is where it will be placed in the garden. Some varieties thrive in the sun, others prefer shade, Ciurej said. Red maples, for example, will turn green if they’re planted in a shady spot. “If you want to keep the red color, they need to get some sun,” he advised. However, too much heat isn’t a good thing either. “Once they acclimate, they’re fine,” Ciurej said. “But some don’t appreciate the afternoon sun especially.” The Graves have solved that dilemma by planting the trees — that now number more than 100 — in large colorful pots. “We’re able to move them around as we want to decorate the front and back yards,” Graves explained. “As time goes by, the shade moves, which then puts more opportunity for Japanese maples to go into shady areas. The sunny spots are for the vegetable garden and fruit trees.” The Graves have added interest and a sense of underlying organization to their landscaping with a half-dozen garden rooms connected by granite walkways. “We have granite floors in the house, from the same source — Ruhkala Granite in Rocklin,” Graves said in an e-mail. Each of the garden rooms has a distinct look and all are different, he said. But they’re all quiet and peaceful retreats. “One is in a birch grove, two are by different ponds, there are a couple of gazebos,” he said. A large Japanese gate, constructed in 2000, frames the entry to the Japanese garden. “We knew we wanted a Japanese gate,” Graves said. “It’s a spectacular thing.” After the Graves described to Loomis landscape architect Max Nagasawa what they wanted, he put together a scale model from Popsicle sticks. The actual gate is made out of redwood with great big beams. “You can drive a car through it,” Graves said. The family enjoys all of the “outdoor rooms,” choosing a spot depending on the time of year, heat of the day and the ambient temperature. “We end up in one place or another around 3 p.m. with a bottle of beer and we say ‘son of a gun, isn’t it wonderful that we can live here,’” Graves said. Although the overall theme is Asian, Graves has added whimsical touches throughout the garden with statues created by Loomis artist Steve Harrington. “We have at least three dragons, a couple of dogs, a couple of sheep and a flying pig from him,” Graves said. “You look at them and you’ll smile. I look at them every day and I smile. He’s enriched our lives.” In designing the yard, the Graves took potential problems and created beauty. “We had a boggy spot,” he said. “It never dried up. It was always muddy. There’s where the first pond went in. It’s always full of groundwater. It just sits there and stays full.” The pond, which was subsequently enlarged, now holds catfish. There are goldfish in one of the smaller ponds. The garden is filled with special finds and one of the most special is a 1,350-pound quartz boulder engraved with a quote from Ina Coolbrith, “California’s poet laureate ‘way back in the first part of the last century,’” Graves said. The inscription reads ”For California is a Poem! The Land of Romance, of Mystery, of Worship, of Beauty and of Song.” For the Graves, it is the perfect description for their foothill paradise. ------------ Japanese maples • Japanese maples can be planted year-round. Watering and planting are the two most important aspects to healthy trees. “It’s everything from planting to position — how much sun it gets and what kind of soil medium to use,” Lakes Nursery owner Joe Ciurej said. “For ones that are prone to sunburn, we have a spray to eliminate that.” • Fertilizing is important, as well as using the right soil mix. The trees need slightly acidic soil. “Lucky for us, most soil around here is acidic,” Ciurej said. • The trees are not heavy feeders. Use any balanced fertilizer with three numbers approximately the same — 16-16-16 is a good choice for in-ground maples. Potted trees require time-release granules. • The best time to prune and shape is after the leaves fall off in the winter. “It should be done by a professional,” Ciurej said. • The two most common Japanese maples are bloodgood and emperor, but there are many new and improved varieties. • Japanese maples available at area nurseries are grafted varieties “If they drop a seed and it comes up, it will revert to the basic acer palmatum, Ciurej said. Lakes Nursery provides planting, care and pruning tips. The nursery is at 8435 Crater Hill Road in Newcastle, phone (530) 885-1027; Web site